Approximately 95% of all eggs in the U.S. are produced using “conventional” methods, where hens live in either battery or colony cages, stored inside large warehouses.
Picture this. You are in your local supermarket on an early Saturday morning. You recently finished a great workout at the gym and now you want to get home and fix yourself a delicious omelette, however, you have no eggs in the refrigerator. You’ve made your way to the dairy aisle and there it is; the eggs that will satisfy your post-workout hunger. You choose your carton, open it up to make sure that there aren’t any cracked shells, and finally head to the register. Now, let’s rewind a bit. Not to when you first entered the supermarket, and no, not back to your workout. Let’s look back on the journey of those eggs to see how they became just another product on the shelf for you to consume. We’re going to learn about the life of laying hens.
Laying hens are descendants of the Indian jungle fowl, whose eggs were consumed by our ancestors. As an excellent source of protein and fiber, and an easy dinner to obtain in the wild, bird eggs in general have always been in high demand. For this reason, humans have maximized the hen’s ability to produce eggs.
First and foremost, it is important to distinguish the difference between fertilized and unfertilized eggs. Unfertilized eggs, those that are produced by laying hens, are those that are used for eating, while fertilized eggs hatch chicks that are grown for their own meat.
After about 21 days of being laid, laying hens begin to emerge from their shells. Once baby chicks hatch from the eggs they find themselves on a seemingly harmless yet realistically terrifying machine called a conveyor belt as they go through the process of sexing and beak trimming. During this procedure, the female chicks–who will grow into loud, pecking laying hens–are distinguished and separated from the males who are shamelessly murdered by gassing, electrocution, or premortem grinding. The males meet such an early death because they can’t lay eggs and their bodies are just not structured to produce the meat we like to eat. For females, their next step is beak trimming. This process only happens for caged or barn system chicks that are not going to be raised with ample space to roam indoors and outside. The reason for this is that cages and barns are unnatural, high-stress environments that encourage conflict and injurious pecking between chickens. Pasture-raised hens rarely require such intrusive beak trimming procedures.
After female chicks have been successfully distinguished and had their beaks trimmed, they are then transported to rearing sites. These are areas designated to allow young chicks, also known as pullets, to mature until they are ready to become laying hens. Once the pullets have reached 16 weeks old(4 months), they will grow feathers and learn how to thermoregulate themselves, which is simply the ability to control their own body temperatures. After these steps, they are transported to their designated laying sites.
Approximately 95% of all eggs in the U.S. are produced using “conventional” methods, where hens live in either battery or colony cages, stored inside large warehouses. Battery cages house thousands of hens in small small cages that limit movement, prevent natural behaviors and increase cases of osteoporosis in hens. Colony cages, also known as furnished or enriched cages, provide nesting spaces, litter and perching space, and house anywhere between 10-80 hens depending on the size of the cage. Caged laying hens receive no natural sunlight or air unless they are being transported.
Cage-free systems are a much more desirable indoor option for hens. Cage-free facilities are often multi-tiered, stacked from floor to ceiling but provide hens with space to walk around and perch, access littered grounds, rest and lay in nesting areas, and exhibit natural behaviors. The maximum stocking density in these vicinities are 9 birds per square meter. Comparatively, that’s about the same as stuffing 9 average sized adults into a single-occupant, restaurant bathroom.
Free-range laying sites, which are often mistaken for pasture-raised, are either warehouse or barn facilities that according to the USDA, must give hens “access to the outdoors”. USDA Certified Organic eggs can only come from free-range hens. It is required that hens living in free-range facilities be aloted no less than 2 square feet per bird. They are fed grains and given a minimum of 6 hours of access to the outdoors. The term “access to the outdoors” should be taken a bit loosely however. This is because many USDA third-party certifiers will allow farmers to satisfy “access to the outdoors” requirements with screened-in porches and “pop holes”. In fact, pop holes just supply natural light and air but don’t give hens full body access to the outdoors.
Lastly, pasture-raised hens are those that are given full access to life outdoors. They eat insects and grass from the pasture, and though they basically live their lives outside, most farmers will bring them inside their coops in the evening to protect them from predators. Eggs laid by pasture-raised hens are also reportedly more beneficial for human health. This due to their naturally higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as vitamins A and E. The ideal land for pastures would allow about 10 square feet a bird, and would include trees for shade and hedges to hide from potential predators.
Egg production slows down for laying hens as they encroach 60-70 weeks of age. By the time hens become 72 weeks old, they are labeled “spent hens” and become victims of depopulation. This is the process of removing hens from their laying sites and transporting them to slaughterhouses where they will soon meet their demise. The last of the eggs that they have produced will be transported in vehicles with controlled temperatures not exceeding 45 degrees fahrenheit, and will soon be stocked on the shelves of your favorite grocery stores to await your consumption. The average egg is placed on a store shelf within 3 days of when it was laid.
Now, we’re back at the grocery store. You have a hungry body that is yearning for protein and you simply can’t wait to get back home and delve into your omelette. However, now you know exactly how your food was raised, handled, and delivered to you. Of course, you still want eggs because in reality they are a cheap, quick and easy source of protein that you can prepare in a variety of ways. The question is which ones will you choose? Will you buy the cheapest large case of eggs on the shelf? You know, the ones that came from hens that rarely moved, confined to compact, hostile environments. Or will you purchase eggs from hens raised free-range or pasture-raised? The decision is yours. The only hope is that after reading this article, you’ll make the (green)choice of supporting farmers that raised the producers of your eggs in the most humane fashion.
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